|TOMORROW, THE KILLING (LOW TOWN 2)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Earlier this year, I read, reviewed and fairly raved about Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, The Straight Razor Cure. Picking up three years after the events of that first book, Polansky’s second novel – and the second volume of the Low Town series – takes us back to Low Town, this time around in the grip of an unbearable heat wave. (The) Warden finds himself for the first time in over a decade in the home of General Edwin Montgomery. The general’s daughter, the headstrong Rhaine, has abandoned the family home and moved to Low Town in an attempt to find out what happened to her brother, the infamous Roland, whose death, she is convinced, was not the suicide that it appeared to be. Warden has a history with Roland, having served under him during the Dren War; it’s a history of respect and friendship, but there is also a darker side to the relationship, forged when their paths – and political ideologies – diverged following the end of the war. Driven by a sense of debt to the family, Warden locates the girl, and soon finds himself playing with a political time bomb that could explode at any moment.
All of the elements that made The Straight Razor Cure are once more in evidence here: the political, religious, racial hotpot that is Low Town and the gritty feel that makes it feel more real that many fantasy settings; the genre-bending plotline that makes this neither fantasy nor mystery, but some clever combination of the two; and Warden himself, in whose voice we hear the story. There are, of course, plenty of new characters around which Polansky has constructed his story; what’s unexpected, though, is the evolution of the city and the world – there are new areas in Low Town that we’ve never visited before, new organisations and gangs that we have never met. In choosing to introduce us to the place in bite-sized chunks, Polansky makes the place feel fluid, and ensures that the setting is unlikely to feel stale or uninteresting at any point in the near future.
Unlike The Straight Razor Cure, which takes a mostly linear approach to storytelling, Tomorrow, The Killing takes a slightly different approach. The narrative jumps around, sometimes recounting the events of here and now, sometimes events that occurred during the Dren War, and sometimes events that took place between the end of the war and the death of Roland Montgomery. The flashbacks serve to show us a new side of Warden while, at the same time, filling in some of the blanks in the history of this fascinating place. The trench war against the Dren has a First World War feeling to it, while the setup of the Veterans’ Association shows that the Crown and Black House are not as all-powerful as they might have appeared; there is a powerful political opposition force in place, and this provides the basis for the thrust of the story.
With an element of the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing (itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), we find Warden in the centre of a potential gang war and uprising. Pitting one side against the other, and using minor gangs to sow the seeds of distrust, awakening old enmities, Warden’s aim is no less than the downfall of one side or the other, all in the pursuit of the truth behind the death of Roland Montgomery. Warden has a credible “in” with both sides (Montgomery’s friend and a veteran himself, his approach to the Veterans’ Association is seen as a natural step, while his conversations with Black House are inevitable considering his history there) which gives the entire story a firm foundation and keeps things well inside the realms of possibility (all things considered). Polansky takes his time getting all the pieces into place, which makes the payoff all the more worthwhile.
There are a couple of niggles in continuity (like the fact that Warden is now often referred to as “The Warden”), but nothing major, and most explained away by the shifting nature of the world that Polansky is effectively constructing “on the fly”, adding places or historical events as and when they are needed. There is nothing here to detract from the story. Tomorrow, The Killing is, to a certain degree, a standalone novel – the Low Town novels are not part of a traditional fantasy series, but rather a series of stories held together by location and character. While chronological reading would be advised, there’s no reason Tomorrow, The Killing isn’t a good place to jump in for new readers. Polansky set the bar extremely high with his first novel, so it’s difficult to pick this one up with anything other than lowered expectations. This book is a slightly different beast and, while it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, it does bring enough to the table to make it a worthy successor and, most importantly, a worthwhile read.
With the same mix of fantasy and noir, and the added ingredient of playing one powerful side off against another, Tomorrow, The Killing succeeds in presenting a complete and engaging story while keeping the Low Town series on track as one of the best fantasy and/or crime series currently on the market. I, personally, am pleased to see the fantasy-lite cover gone, replaced by something a bit darker that will fit well in any section of a bookshop. Far from sophomore slump, Polansky builds on the success of his first novel, continuing the world-building as he goes: new areas of town, new characters, new political forces and histories, all of which combine to keep the reader interested in what’s going on, and wishing for more once it’s all over. Tomorrow, The Killing reads well as a standalone fantasy-crime-thriller, but readers who start with The Straight Razor Cure will, inevitably, come through with a much more rounded experience. Overall, it’s one not to be missed, regardless of your genre preferences.